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New Library and Administration Building

The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama

The Central School School of Speech and Drama's new East Block forms part of the realisation of a masterplan for the School's land and buildings on its prominent location in Swiss Cottage. At the heart of the site and the institution is the Embassy Theatre and main administration building - a late Victorian red brick building (subsequently given a stucco façade) facing onto Eton Avenue. The first phases of the development comprised the construction of a new five storey extension to the theatre housing workshops, a new studio theatre, dressing rooms, wardrobe storage and design studios. This building is at the centre of the site and will subsequently be surrounded by new buildings replacing the temporary structures around the School's perimeter.

"The project shows ... that it is possible to combine sensitivity and due deference to historic surroundings with confident expression of individuality and a modern identity."

'Building in Context', CABE / English Heritage publication

The East Block forms the third phase in the masterplan and, situated immediately to the east of the Embassy Theatre, is the first to have a public presence on the street. It replaces a decaying four storey 1960's block and a collection of temporary single storey timber structures to the rear. The site forms the interface between the public and institutional land use of Swiss Cottage and the private houses and gardens of Belsize Park and is immediately adjacent to a Conservation Area. There were consequently sensitive planning issues to be addressed particularly in connection with questions of bulk and overlooking on the garden side of the site. After extended discussions with Camden Council, neighbours and local bodies, planning consent was granted in 1994.

The brief for the building requires that it function as a stand alone building which will subsequently be connected integrally into the main circulation spaces of the School (to be built when the Embassy Theatre is refurbished as part of the next stage in the masterplan). The primary purpose of the building is to house the School's enlarged library and computer-based learning facilities along with the student bar, staff offices, the staff common room and a board room.

The building consists of a five storey block onto the street which is designed to be of subsidiary visual importance to the main frontage of the Embassy Theatre and to be sympathetic in scale and form to the adjacent Victorian villas of Adamson Road. The building reduces in scale to the rear with a low two storey structure under an irregularly shaped copper and glass roof, minimising the impact on the adjacent private gardens.

The form of the building is intimately related to the functions within. The student bar and common room in the basement are screened off from the street by a grass mound and a Portland stone screen. This battered screen wall, pulled away from the facade, allows top light into the space behind and relates visually to the white painted bays of the adjacent houses.

The main part of the library is on the upper ground floor and is divided into a variety of different types of study and reading space. To the front are formal rectangular "rooms" formed by bookstacks and lit by tall regular windows in the Eton Avenue facade. To the rear concrete columns support cruciform steel plate tree-like structures under large rooflights centred over the columns. These in turn support cantilevered steel beams propping the sloping "leaves" of the copper roof planes at the back of the space. Thus reflected natural light is brought into the heart of the library and a variety of unique reading spaces is formed with views up into the trees outside - akin to reading in the garden.

On the upper floors are staff offices - all with natural light and views out. The staff common room and board room on the top floor give onto a south facing terrace. On the inside of the block, facing onto the flank of the School's main building, a curved core clad in painted render houses the plantroom, WC's and service spaces - the "bowels" of the building as it were. At the north end of the core, a lift gives access to open balconies with a glass roof and temporary cladding which will, in subsequent phases, look over a glazed atrium link forming the main circulation spine of the institution.

The structure is an in-situ concrete frame with unadorned ply-formed concrete providing the finish to the ceilings throughout and the walls in the core areas and main stairs. The external walls are of solid Flemish bond brickwork with white self-coloured render to the "attic" floor under the copper roof. Internal partitions are metal stud with plasterboard finish and there are raised access floors throughout. Kilburn Nightingale's responsibilities extended to the design of the majority of the fitted furniture (including the student bar) and the light fittings. Red brick is the predominant material of the buildings on Eton Avenue and the East Block will eventually be complemented by a similarly clad cafe, theatre and gallery building immediately to the west of the main Embassy Theatre facade.

The building is naturally ventilated (with mechanical extract from the student bar) and is, as far as possible, naturally lit. Ventilation slots over the steel-framed windows along with the unclad concrete ceilings are intended to facilitate night-time trickle cooling.

The planning of the East Block is critical to the School's strategy to provide disabled access to the whole institution and the building has been designed with the advice of the School's disability access auditor. The new lift not only serves this building, but will eventually provide access to the upper floors in the main School and the theatre which are currently inaccessible to wheelchair users.

The project was funded by a grant from the Higher Education Funding Council for England and cost in the region of 1.8 million excluding VAT and fees.